Jordan Geronimo came to Indiana from the East Coast, so when he arrived in Bloomington in 2020, he had no reason to have a great deal of knowledge when it came to legendary IU basketball coach Bob Knight.
Geronimo said he knew of Knight when he arrived, referring to him as a “name you can’t miss in college basketball.”
But when Knight started coming around IU basketball practices this season, Geronimo could see all he needed to know by looking into the eyes of the three-time national champion head coach.
“When he speaks he has this fire that’s unmatched,” Geronimo said.
Knight didn’t come to formal Indiana basketball activities for 20 years after he was fired in 2000. He said he’d never return. But he moved back to Bloomington in 2019, and then made a public appearance at a game against Purdue in 2020.
Despite softening his stance at the urging of his former players, Knight still wasn’t by any means a regular at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
But that changed this season.
Mike Woodson was one of Knight’s favorite players, and the two remained close after Woodson graduated from Indiana in 1980. And with Woodson at the helm as the IU head coach, Knight came back for a practice during the 2021-22 season. And then this year, he made coming to practices a habit.
Knight started coming to practice this season once a week, often accompanied by former players such as Randy Wittman and Ted Kitchel. He sat in the same spot every time on the court at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
For Woodson, his coach was back where he belongs.
“It means a great deal to me that he’s back here,” Woodson said a few weeks ago on a radio interview. “Make no mistake about it, Indiana basketball is Bob Knight. The fact that he’s back here where he belongs. It’s like old times again, and I’m excited about that.”
Trey Galloway was born and raised in Indiana. He’s understood what Knight means to the program from a young age.
He knows Knight had an ability to get the best out of his players — and perhaps he still does. For Galloway, knowing Knight is sitting in his regular spot watching makes practice move at a different pace.
“It’s really cool to have him be in the practice and have him watching us,” Galloway said. “It gives us a little bit more of an edge at practice. When you see him looking at you or saying something to you, you know that you’ve gotta go a little bit harder.”
Galloway believes Knight’s influence even extends to Woodson at practice.
“Coach Woodson, he sees him (Knight) in there at practice too, and it helps him get going a little bit more. As a coach and a mentor to him, it’s really cool to see that dynamic (between Knight and Woodson),” Galloway said.
Knight mostly just observed practices this year, but he did address the team a few times. What message stood out to the players?
“Most the time it’s just ‘play defense, play hard, win games,'” veteran guard and Bloomington native Anthony Leal said.
When Knight came to the Purdue game in 2020, he engaged the crowd in a “Defense” chant, and that continues to be a theme.
“The biggest thing is, he preaches defense,” Galloway said. “Every time he sees us, his main focus is talking about defense.”
Geronimo remembered another specific message from Knight, likely delivered with that fire he described.
“You guys didn’t come to Indiana to play, you came to win,” he said.
Galloway said he’d try to soak up as much as could from Knight when he was at practices.
“I’d try to go over there and talk to him as much as possible,” Galloway said. “Anything he can say to us is helpful. It’s really cool to be in the presence of him, because he’s one of the greatest ever.”
When Indiana was searching for a new coach two years ago, it wasn’t clear that athletic director Scott Dolson would go the former players route. But his decision to hire Woodson helped bring more than just Knight back to the program.
The current players hear from former players on a regular basis too.
“They all come in with the same message,” Leal said. ‘It’s bigger than just who you are. It’s about the jersey you put on and the people who played before you and the people who come after you.”
Leal believes having a coach who was in Bloomington during the peak of the program and understands that very message matters.
“Having someone that’s been so close to it and knows what it takes and knows what it means,” he said. “It sets the standard from the top.”
Of all the players on the team, Leal knows more about the history of the program and Knight than anyone. And he believes Woodson and the players weren’t the only ones getting value from Knight’s presence this season.
Leal believes the 82-year-old Knight, who was hospitalized over the weekend, found joy being back in the place that made him a household name and a coaching icon.
“For him to be able to come back to where he gave so much of his life and changed what it means to be a Hoosier, it’s definitely special for him too,” Leal said.
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